ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms


Links and Movies30 Sep 2010

Sixty Symbols is a collection of short videos on topics in physics and astronomy, presented by various faculty members from the University of Nottingham. I’ve been enjoying them thoroughly. I liked the one on dark matter quite a bit.

They’ve been around a while, I gather, but I just found ‘em, so maybe they’re new to you too.

Movies18 Oct 2009

We watched the movie Primer the other night. It’s about a couple of engineers who invent a limited kind of time travel in their garage. It was shot on a budget of $7000 and doesn’t have any special effects or flashy action sequences, and all of the performances are really low-key: the engineers talk like engineers. It’s a naturalistic approach that really works, and the movie is that much more fascinating for feeling “plausible”.

The time machine that the two engineers invent allows them to travel backwards a day or two at a time, pretty much at will. A lot of SF that deals with time travel often dodges the really interesting possibilities: i.e., can you go back and meet yourself? No, it’s not allowed, it might “rupture the fabric of the space-time continuum” or something like that. Primer takes the easy road out of nothing: it grabs the concept of time travel with both hands and runs with it as far as it can. I really liked that it only took the inventors a week to go from “we can use this to predict the stock market and get rich,” to absolute chaos.

Primer is probably not for everyone. The last third is extremely hard to follow (there’s a huge chart on the internet somewhere that tries to lay out the plot as it continually circles back on itself, and even after spending some time with that chart I’m still not completely sure what happened) and a person could easily find it both bewildering and boring. Despite all that, I thought it was fantastic.

Movies27 Sep 2009

I finally saw District 9 and was quite impressed. It’s the best Science Fiction movie I’ve seen since I can’t remember when. There haven’t been many good SF films recently: the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still was terrible (and I’m quite a fan of the original), and most other apparently Sci-Fi films out recently (even Star Trek) barely even qualify as hard Sci-Fi. Hollywood seems to have stolen our Science Fiction and replaced it with something called “Techno-Action” instead.

But then along came District 9. The premise is that an alien spaceship breaks down in the skies over Johannesburg South Africa, stranding a million or so insectiod aliens (“Prawns”) on Earth. The aliens are housed in a sprawling, fenced-in slums, fed cat food, and generally mistreated and reviled by the surrounding human community. “At least the government keeps them away from us,” says a woman early in the film. As the movie opens, the Prawns are about to be relocated from the slums to a nice new modern internment camp, and an ineffectual bureaucrat named Wikus Van De Merwe is put in charge of going door-to-alien-door serving eviction notices. Of course, for Wikus, things don’t quite go according to plan.

The thing that makes this movie great is the lack of conventional heroes. Wikus is kind of a drip and is never exactly brilliant, even in the course of his eventual heroics. More interestingly, the Prawns are not particularly exceptional either. They aren’t highly-evolved celestial travelers so much hapless passengers on a giant interstellar greyhound bus that had the misfortunate to break down in some out-of-the-way spot. The movie has a lot to say about racism, both overt and institutional, and what allows it to raise these issues so deftly is precisely that the Prawns aren’t particularly noble in the face of oppression. Rather than asking us to feel for them, we are instead encouraged to think about what our responsibilities towards our fellow beings are, even when those beings are ordinary flawed and brutish folk who we happen to not like very much. In other words, the Prawns are just like any real-life tread-upon group. Even better is that the movie manages to avoid delivering a heavy-handed moral pronouncement on the situation (that I really liked the ending is all I’ll say about that).

Definitely worth checking out.

Links and Movies24 Jun 2009

Almost. I saw Transformers 1, and there’s no way I’m falling for that again.

This review of the new giant robot cgi-fest is brilliant:

So LaBoeuf, who’s actually a fine actor, is the stand-in for the male viewers’ greatest fears about themselves. No matter how great a loser they might be, they can’t be as losery a loser as Sam Witwicky. And yet, Sam has awesome giant robots stomping around telling him he’s the most important awesome person ever. And he has the hottest girlfriend in the universe, Megan Fox, for whom banality is a huge aphrodisiac. The more pathetic Sam gets, the more Fox’s lips pout and her nipples point, like little Irish setters.

Michael Bay Finally Made An Art Movie

Movies09 May 2009

Crossing the theatre parking lot on our way to see Star Trek, we passed a van with a license plate reading “REDSHIRT”. I think I know what those people were there to see.

So, what did I think? I don’t mind “re-imaginings”, I’m a big BSG fan after all, and, with a new cast portraying the original Star Trek characters, this movie leans in that direction. However, I don’t think they quite pulled it off. It didn’t really feel like Star Trek, and didn’t manage to redefine Star Trek into anything new and compelling either. It was generic space-ships-and-explosions sci-fi.

Still, it could have been a disaster, and it wasn’t. I’m sure sequels are in the works, and I’m cautiously optimistic.

Links and Movies12 Jan 2009

We watched Hancock on the weekend. We were disappointed.

The really disappointing thing about it was that, on paper, it could have been quite good. Will Smith plays Hancock, an inept and generally reviled superhero. The movie opens with a hung-over Hancock flying superman-style to intervene in a high speed chase on an LA freeway. He nabs the bad guys, but causes 6 million dollars in damages to roads, buildings, police cars, and anything else that gets in his way in the process. We imagine the city was once thrilled to have their own super-powered crime fighter; now he’s become a public menace. But how do you rein in someone who can fly and is immune to bullets?

I hope I’m making this sound good. I should have been good. There are so many good directions the movie could have gone from there. It could have been a hilarious slapstick comedy. It could have been a great satire of the over-played superhero genre. It could have taken the consequences of having super powers seriously. It could have been an examination of how even the “best” among us can fail. At the very least, it should have been an entertaining story of one (super) man’s redemption.

Apparently the filmmakers saw this smorgasbord of possibilities before them and decided to have none of it. After 30 minutes, the movie transformed in some kind of unwieldy and nonsensical superhero love triangle. I really don’t understand Hollywood sometimes.

And, on a tangentially related note, here’s my new favorite website: TV Tropes – a gleeful catalog of every cliché and convention of TV, film, and other narrative media.

Movies15 Nov 2008

There’s a scene in “Quantum of Solace” where James Bond tells one of his enemies to sit down in such a commanding voice that I took a moment to make sure that I was still in my seat. Daniel Craig is a scary scary man when he wants to be. He’s really the only reason I’d willingly watch a Bond film at this point – the franchise had become pretty tired out by the final days of Pierce Brosnan. The new Bond is a bit less adolescent and a bit more kinetic: lots of close-filmed hyper-active chase scenes in the style of Jason Bourne, and a dearth of gadgets. I really don’t miss the gadgets – I mean, once James Bond got a car that could turn invisible, what else could Q possibly give him?

While I largely approve of the new “smart action movie” Bond formula, I do worry that “007” is in danger of becoming a clone of the aforementioned Jason Borne. I think Daniel Craig has more charisma than Matt Damon, and plays a much more believable espionage super hero (he’s not a man, he’s a seething hulk of barely-restrained muscle), but in this movie he didn’t stand out enough from the rest of the action hero crowd. Missing were some good Bondian one-liners, and the lack of Bond’s wit made this installment weaker than Casino Royale, but it was fun without being silly, which is good enough in my books. I’m sure Daniel Craig will get a third kick at the can, and I look forward to it.

On another note,we saw trailer for the latest Brendan Fraser cgi monstrosity, and it left me wondering: is Brendan Fraser cast in all these dumb but flashy films because the producers feel assured his blandness won’t distract from all the expensive computer effects?

Books and Movies10 Apr 2008

April fools! I’m not really in Nebraska.

I have only a weak affinity for the undead. Some people apparently think vampires and zombies are the Coolest Thing Ever, but not me. They can be a good device when done properly, but proper handling of them is rare.

I was quite disappointed when I discovered Halo’s single player campaign eventually turns into a ho-hum zombie hunt. Tactical battles against clever aliens gave way to leaning on the “fire” key and hoping my shotgun wouldn’t run out of ammo at an inopportune time. Endless faceless hordes are scary at first, and then become repetitive.

I caught the movie “I Am Legend” a couple months back. It’s about the last man alive in a world overrun by vampire-like plague victims who only come out at night. It’s notable for its scenes of people-free New York City and it’s fun to watch Will Smith crack up from loneliness, but ultimately failed to deliver on its premise and suffered from an absolutely idiotic ending.

I liked it enough that I subsequently read the 1964 novel of the same name by Richard Matheson. The book offers a more interesting take on vampire-plague dystopia, one in which the title actually makes sense. It’s tough to say a lot about without giving away a lot of the plot (and if you think you might want to read t, for god’s sake stay off google). Compared to the movie, the undead are a little less terrifying and a little more pathetic (though still dangerous), the protagonist is even more deranged, and the ending does a nice job of turing all the vampire folklore on its head. It may seem a bit predictable to today’s (metaphorically) undead-plagued reader, but it actually pioneered the “zombie as plague victim concept” and so is a notable part of the Undead Canon. What it really does well is paint a portrait of a man driven mad by the mad world he’s been thrust into.

Worth checking out. Your local library probably has a copy with Will Smith on the cover.

Movies15 Mar 2008

…then you don’t have a very good plan. Even if that one guy happens to be “ex-special-ops”.

Saw “Vantage Point” today. It’s an action movie about assassinating the president of the USA at an anti-terrorism summit in Spain. The title refers not to the plot but rather to the film’s structure. The same sequence of events is replayed several times from the perspectives of various characters, revealing a little more of the story each time. By following one character at a time as each hurtles through their version of events rather than cutting back and forth between them, the movie manages to keep up a frantic sense of pacing. It is perhaps the most “non-stop” movie I’ve seen since Run Lola Run, whose structure could well have inspired this movie.

The film contains an adequate “sinister conspiracy” and some genuine suspense, as well as obligatory car chases, so it works well as a fun action flick. We don’t learn much about any of the characters though. The most interesting of the bunch (the rest, as David Denby noted in his New Yorker review, are largely cardboard cutout heroes or villains) gets treated the least completely, which is too bad.

The film does have one other interesting element: the first iteration follows a crew in a news van from a Fox-News like network as they juggle live feeds of the President’s public appearance and resolutely refuse to show any footage of the massive protest just outside the square where the President is to make his speech. It’s a neat twist, though one wonders if the film’s American audience would have any clue as to why there might be a protest at a world anti-terrorism summit in the first place. The film wastes no time in explaining such trivialities. Instead, it’s all about who shot POTUS and the Secret Service man whose gonna catch those evil-doers.

Movies21 Oct 2007

Last night we went to see In the Shadow of the Moon, a new documentary on the Apollo program that mixes restored NASA archival footage with close-ups of ten surviving lunar astronauts speaking into the camera.

At first I was actually a little disappointed because I didn’t learn much from the movie that I didn’t already know, but then I realized relating the trivia of Apollo isn’t really the film’s aim. It is different from the usual take on Apollo in that doesn’t focus as much on the technical details, or give a blow-by-blow account of the missions, or catalog the various funny/interesting/dangerous episodes that happened along the way. Instead it’s much more about what going to the moon meant to the men who went there.

Notably absent from the film is Neil Armstrong, who declined to be interviewed (the first man on the moon is somewhat reclusive now). The movie is perhaps better without him, since his absence frees it to focus on the other astronauts who his fame tends to overshadow (I bet if you asked your friends to name some Apollo astronauts, a lot of them would come up with “Neil Armstrong” and then draw a blank…). Still, he is by no means missing: the bulk of the screen time goes to his Apollo 11 crew-mates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, as well as 13′s Jim Lovell, and 12′s Alan Bean, all of whom discuss Armstrong at length. The portrait that emerges is of a man who really embodied the “Right Stuff”: very smart, highly skilled, without ego, and the ultimate Mr. cool under pressure. This is a guy who remained unflappable while getting shot down in Vietnam, saving an out-of-control Gemini module, avoiding death by a half-second when bailing out of a lunar-landing trainer, accidental chopping off his finger working on his farm (it was re-attached), and, not least, being the first guy to land on the moon (his wikipedia entry is pretty decent and full of anecdotes—for example, the one time he few with Chuck Yeager they crash-landed). I will confess that I’ve never been a big Armstrong “fan” (maybe because he gets all the attention), but this movie changed my perception of him.

It’s a little strange to see those men, who in their prime must have seemed immortal, in their old age, but even in their 70s, they all seem sharp and energetic and and retain something of their heroic youth. Buzz Aldrin is quite vital at age 77, and Jim Lovell reminded me of a pleasant retired fellow you might meet sitting in front of his trailer in a campground somewhere. I also enjoyed Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot. It was nice to hear from him, especially given the tendency to think of the Apollo 11 crew as “Armstrong, Aldrin, and that other guy who didn’t walk on the moon”.

Some of the NASA footage is amazing. There’s a slow-motion close-up of a Saturn V rocket launch at the beginning of the movie that gave me goosebumps. There was also a fair bit I hadn’t seen before, including some cool footage from a camera mounted on the front of the Apollo 17 rover as it bounces across the lunar surface (Schmidt: “It was a bit of a wild ride even for Mr. Test Pilot Cernan”). Perhaps my favorite was an extended shot looking down at the surface as Apollo 11 leaves the moon. As the view unfolds you can see the trails in the regolith that the astronauts made as the moved around the landing site, like tracks in the snow.

If the film hadn’t touched on the “moon landing was faked” conspiracy theories at all, that would have perhaps been better, but the way they addressed it, by including several short clips of the astronauts scoffing at the notion into the closing credits, was fitting. The best line (I forget from who, Collins?): “We went to the moon nine times. Why did we need to fake it nine times?”

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